Les Miserables - London

This beloved story of love, courage and redemption is the longest-running musical in West End history.

Ramin Karimloo on Trading the Phantom's Mask to Play Jean Valjean in London's Les Miserables

Ramin Karimloo spent many years wearing the most famous of musical theater masks, first in The Phantom of the Opera and then its sequel, Love Never Dies, for which he received an Olivier Award nomination as Best Actor. Now the 33-year-old performer has shifted mega-musicals to play Jean Valjean in Les Miserables at the Queen’s Theatre. Broadway.com caught up with the ever-busy, always articulate West End star one recent afternoon to talk about the release of his first album, acting with friends, and life beyond the mask.

After all those years as the Phantom, now you’re Jean Valjean in Les Miserables! Was that an inevitable progression?
I had finished Love Never Dies and was working on my album, and I was really thinking, “OK, I’ve got a couple of months to rest or maybe do a pub play or some fringe theater”—something totally different. It was in the run-up to the Phantom gala [concert last October at Royal Albert Hall], and Cameron [Mackintosh, the producer] said he wanted to talk to me about doing Jean Valjean. I thought, “No this is not the right time.”

So, what happened?
Basically, I would say that Cameron had more faith in me than I have in myself [laughs]! During those Phantom concert rehearsals, everyone cleared the room and we had a frank conversation about it, and I will always have a huge debt of gratitude to Cameron for what he said. In my head, I saw Colm [Wilkinson] and Alfie [Boe] in the role, but what I realized was that I had to reinvent the part for myself. Then we talked logistics, and it was agreed that I could do three months, six shows a week. I’d made a New Year’s resolution not to let things get so busy that I burn myself out, but I can be full on for six shows a week. [Karimloo has Monday and Thursday nights off.] Can I say, too, that this was purely a creative decision? I had money in the bank, but when the composer and producer of a show approach you personally, you do think, “OK, what can I bring to this?”

And now you’ve swapped the Phantom’s mask for a false beard.
I know, and when I first saw the images, I was like, “No, that’s not me,” and then it was, like, “Holy crap, it is me!” So a huge hats off to the makeup artist. In a funny way, it’s even harder to sing with a false beard because of the glue, but I just open my mouth and hope for the best and trust that my beard doesn’t fall off [laughs].

What’s it been like to join a show closely associated with your good friends Alfie Boe and Matt Lucas?
It’s meant so much to have their support, especially when Alfie said, “Run with it,” because I didn’t want to be some young actor trying to act old. I have to say that it also helps having my best friend [Hadley Fraser] playing Javert. I think people assume that the two of us are up there having a ball corpsing [fooling around], as if we’re like the Will Ferrell and Ben Stiller of the West End, but that is so not true. What we actually get off on is finding different, more truthful moments every night.

So, you’re able to make the role your own?
What’s been interesting, actually, is how much of me I feel I’ve been able to add to the part. I am the worst reader you’ve ever met, but when I decided to do this, I went back to the [Victor Hugo] novel and the more I sat there taking notes, the more inspired I got, not least by Valjean’s struggle with God. I’d seen Colm play the part in Canada and I will never forget that performance, but reading the novel took me back to square one; I was like a blank page.

What about the vocal requirements compared to those of Phantom and Love Never Dies?
Well, I don’t wake up feeling like someone strangled me [laughs]. With Phantom there was all that screaming, and although Valjean in some ways is the hardest thing vocally that I’ve ever done, I find that it sits more naturally in my voice; it goes better within my range. But I like to think that I’m not ever standing still. The day I got nominated for an Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical, I hired an acting coach, Dee Cannon, who teaches at RADA [London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art]. That’s not about walking around like Daniel Day-Lewis [laughs]. In fact, quite the opposite; it’s about, for instance, having the tools so that when we were doing the Phantom concert I knew how to get my performance to the back of the room in a way that it’s not too big for the camera. It’s about knowing when and how to use these tools.

How does Love Never Dies look to you now, all these months after you finished starring in the most-debated musical of the last few years?
The thing I’ll say about Love Never Dies is that I don’t regret anything about it. I still believe in what the show should have been, and I also think that the story was over-complicated. We were trying to get into the heads of five characters, and there wasn’t enough time to do that. But even with the problems that existed, the people I look up to loved it, and we got standing ovations every night. And I've got first refusal if Broadway ever happens, although I'm not sure at this point that I could get back to the mask.

And now you’re moving into a new phase of your career, as a recording artist!
Absolutely! Everything for me at the moment is about diversifying. I’ve got two movies I am hoping to do this year, and I would love to do a play. The album comes out on March 5, and I start a tour at [London’s] Royal Festival Hall on May 1.

A play? Tell me more.
Well, the first thing I ever did as a kid was a play in Toronto: Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers, playing Jay Kurnitz. I find myself now thinking that I’d like to play Stanley Kowalski; that’s something I feel I’m ready for. Between Jay Kurnitz and Jean Valjean, I’ve gotten to that place [laughs].

And your debut disc is called, aptly enough, Ramin: a bit of a no-brainer there?
We were actually going to call it Song of the Human Heart, which is a song on the album by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater. I thought that was a perfect title except that it was quite long. So after talks with all the money and marketing people, we went with Ramin [laughs]. What else could it be?